Speaking of pros, Harwell hasn't slipped an inch

July 18, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Quality of voice, a profound knowledge of baseball -- worthy of Phi Beta Kappa recognition -- and the ability to transmit the subject matter with an attention-getting professional presence have carved a distinctive identity for Ernie Harwell. He has been an artist with words, painting vivid pictures; a moving montage, so to speak, from parks and stadiums across the landscape of America.

It has been more than 50 years and still he goes on, uninterrupted, defying the aging process and creating a longevity that has informed and entertained generations of listeners. His performance level hasn't regressed. It's a spontaneous feeling that he gets up each morning and can't wait to get to the ballpark.

Being one of the oldest play-by-play announcers in the history of the sport (he's a young 81) is only a footnote to a career and life that have been exemplary. He has been around long enough to have known Absorbine Sr., plus Connie Mack, and set a high standard of excellence, never to embarrass himself or fall into the category of a shill.

Harwell was at the radio microphone as the first welcoming voice Baltimore heard in its 1954 return to major-league baseball. He still sounds the same, an observation that's pleasing for him to hear. In fact, there's a transcription of Harwell doing a 1946 Atlanta Crackers-Nashville Vols game in the Southern Association, and the style and pace haven't changed.

There's no sign of rust in his enunciation nor any erosion of enthusiasm. Those ever-clear Harwell tones are quickly recognizable. Yes, that's Ernie. It's the way he inserts stories and anecdotes that have given him an individuality all his own.

He's a baseball historian who knows as much about Napoleon Lajoie as Cookie Lavagetto or Felipe Lira, but he doesn't wear out the listener with extraneous commentary.

Harwell, indeed, is still on his game. Not a stumble or a stutter (and as a child he had a speech impediment). When the ball is hit, he provides the first and last name of the player making the fielding play, whether he's with the Detroit Tigers, the team he covers for 50,000-watt WJR radio, or the opposition. It's obvious that the source describing what's going on is not a part-timer or a short-term replacement or even that it's coming from an 81-year-old veteran of the microphone.

That he was once a sportswriter and editor, working for the Atlanta Constitution and beginning as a correspondent at age 15 for the Sporting News, has given him an awareness of what it is to be a working reporter.

"I've always tried not to be too wordy," he says. "Those six years on the Atlanta paper, when I was in high school and college, taught me a lot about brevity."

Is Harwell the oldest play-by-play announcer a team has ever had? There's no assurance, but it's believed Harry Caray was 83 or 84, depending on the accuracy of his admitted "broadcast age."

But Harwell doesn't stray into the field of showmanship. He is an exemplary gentleman who has mastered his craft and is deeply religious, but doesn't force his profound beliefs on others.

In the book he wrote in 1985, entitled "Tuned To Baseball," he described in candid fashion what he thought of managers Jimmy Dykes, a delightful leprechaun; Paul Richards, not entirely complimentary but an assessment that was generally agreed to be fair and accurate; Sparky Anderson; Ralph Houk; Charlie Dressen; Mayo Smith; Leo Durocher and others.

He quoted the late Jack Dunn III in regard to Richards, as saying, "If Paul drank a bottle of beer at breakfast instead of prune juice, he'd get along a lot better with everybody."

Harwell likes the story of when Dykes was fired at the end of the Orioles' first season in the American League. There was a hurried news conference in Boston. Sportswriter Hugh Trader Jr., then of the Baltimore News-Post, entered the room and wondered what was to be announced. He saw manager Dykes and asked, "Hi, Jimmy. What goes?" And, as if on cue, Dykes answered, "I do."

Harwell has never taken himself too seriously. Once, playing golf during spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., he hit a shot on the 18th hole that carried over the green and smashed the clubhouse window. He turned to his partners, without changing expression, and merely inquired, "Is that a one- or two-stroke penalty?"

Harwell doesn't have the rich, classic voice, the kind that fills up a room and resonates to the hills and valleys, of a Chuck Thompson, Ted Husing or Lindsey Nelson, three of the best ever heard, but he has a style all his own.

Listening to him is comfortable, maybe as pleasurable as putting on a pair of old moccasins and sitting on a river bank with fishing rod in hand.

Harwell, the fourth man to be enshrined in the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was hoping Baltimore would name its new park after Babe Ruth instead of Englishman Charles Pratt, the earl of Camden, who never set foot in America and died before the sport was invented.

The leading question is how much longer Harwell will continue to be a part of a game he truly reveres. "I don't know," he answers. "I still love my job. I have a contract for this year and next. That means I'll say goodbye to Tiger Stadium and hello to the new park. We'll just take it a season at a time."

Harwell, who wears well in all manner of means, continues on as a baseball constant. He hasn't missed a step or, more importantly, a syllable, either.

Clarification

Last week's column on the merits of replacing rather than upgrading Pimlico Race Course used a figure of $60 million. That is the overall cost of a plan that would also improve Laurel Park, the off-track-betting system and their marketing. Refurbishing Pimlico is projected to cost $18.2 million.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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